Phish or Foul? | Music Feature | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Music » Music Feature

Phish or Foul?

Local Matters


Published September 15, 2004 at 6:35 p.m.

Last month's farewell Phish shows in Coventry were plagued by torrential rains, treacherous mud bogs and a 25-mile traffic jam that turned Interstate 91 into a parking lot. As if the swan song for the Vermont-based jam band wasn't already enough of a mess -- for organizers and fans alike -- it now appears that some concertgoers may have also been exposed to sewage sludge that was spread on the site just 10 months earlier.

About 66 acres of the 600-acre festival site at Newport State Airport were used for the disposal of municipal sludge from the city of Newport's wastewater treatment plant, according to information provided by the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation. Approx-imately 1.2 tons of sludge per acre were injected eight inches deep into the soil in a process known as "biosolid application."

Ordinarily, humans aren't allowed onto sludge-treated fields for at least one year. The DEC first learned of the sludge last spring when the city of Newport and the festival organizer, Great Northeast Productions, contacted the agency. "We consulted with appropriate state officials regarding this, and secured a permit from the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources allowing us limited use of those areas during the event," explains Great Northeast President Dave Werlin in a written statement to Seven Days. "To the best of our knowledge, we were in full compliance with that permit at all times prior to and during the event."

Christine Thompson, director of the DEC's Wastewater Management Division, confirms that the DEC directed organizers to designate that area for day-use parking only. "Otherwise, public access to that land was supposed to be restricted," Thompson says. "There was not supposed to be any camping or hanging around on that particular acreage."

But two environmental groups that learned of the sludge aren't convinced. "We all know how festivals go, especially the Phish concert," says Lindsey Hodel of the Montpelier-based Toxics Action Center. "There was a lot of flooding and tents ended up being pitched on the day-use parking areas."

Toxics Action Center and the Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG) filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the DEC seeking more data about what was spread and how much. Although sludge is not considered "hazardous waste" by the state or federal government, both groups oppose biosolid application because sludge often contains high concentrations of human pathogens, heavy metals, PCBs, dioxins and other potentially toxic components. Those compounds can not only contaminate nearby wells and groundwater, both groups say, but can also pose a serious threat to human and animal health.

Exposure to class B biosolids, the most common form of municipal sludge and the kind spread in Coventry, has been linked to a host of health problems, including skin rashes, eye and respiratory-tract irritations, infections, gastrointestinal problems and flu-like symptoms. A 2002 report by the National Academy of Sciences notes that contact with sludge can even be lethal. In 1995, for example, two Pennsylvania youths died after contracting staph infections linked to a pathogen found in a sludge field near their homes.

Toxics Action Center and VPIRG are concerned that some fans may have camped or walked barefoot through sludge-treated fields. A medic who worked at the concerts, who asked to remain anonymous, reports that he treated "thousands" of concertgoers with a wide range of foot injuries, including blisters, lacerations and the early stages of "trench foot." The medic expressed concern about the difficulty of keeping those wounds clean and dry in conditions that often included calf-deep mud.

The sludge spread at the Coventry site was heat-treated to kill some, though not all, of its pathogens, according to Cathy Jamieson, supervisor of the residuals management program at the DEC. Jamieson says class B sludge is routinely spread on fields that are used for growing crops.

"If we're worried about public health, I would probably be more concerned about the human waste I saw on the site," Jamieson says, referring to the difficulties organizers had with servicing portable toilets due to the mud. "To me, that would pose a greater public health risk."

An estimated 65,000 fans attended the August 14-15 shows by Phish, the four-man band that has attracted an international following often likened to that of the Grateful Dead. Fans routinely spent days camping and hanging around parking lots. But weeks of heavy rains in August made the Coventry site a veritable quagmire, resulting in the State Police setting up roadblocks and turning many fans away.